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Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the scheme. We welcome it strongly. It will make for a simpler, fairer and speedier process. It will also bring Northern Ireland provision roughly—more than roughly—in line with that for the rest of the UK, which means that we will have common standards throughout the jurisdiction. I particularly welcome the lifting of the mandatory time limits in cases involving the sexual abuse of children. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, that is, unfortunately, especially welcome at this time.

We look forward to the day when criminal injuries compensation matters can be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That will be another landmark in Northern Ireland's journey towards becoming a normal liberal democracy.

Lord Laird: My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the scheme. Broadly speaking, I can say that there is much to be commended in the scheme, but I want to talk about some issues of concern. I shall not take too long.

I am delighted by the concept of the review of the scheme. One of the aspects covered by that review must be the tariffs themselves. I urge the Government to try a neater solution to that issue and index-link the tariff scheme, so that there is an automatic move up the scale year by year, according to the rate of inflation.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in paying tribute to the former distinguished head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. His report was concerned about procedural shortcomings in the existing system of criminal injury compensation. The report recommended tariffs for minor injuries only and a continuation of court-based systems for the more major criminal injuries.

I am concerned about the process of consultation on the scheme into which the Government entered in the past few years. There was consultation with the ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly which unanimously rejected the proposals. Many in the current Government are enthusiastic about devolution, yet when the scheme was referred to the Assembly the proposals were totally rejected. So much for that type of devolution.

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I suggest that the Government might have given a commitment to wait and to introduce the scheme until after the 2003 Assembly elections. I join the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, in hoping that some day soon this type of legislation will fall under the remit of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Law Society in Northern Ireland also rejected the tariff scheme. Despite the lengthy four-year period of consultation, the society was hardly consulted. The Minister in another place had only one meeting with the Law Society. I believe that the Government's consultation process could have been better organised.

One of the arguments for the tariff scheme is that it will cut the £5 million going to the legal profession in legal costs. Will the Minister define what is meant by "legal costs for the legal profession"? I understand that the average amount paid to solicitors for the type of case in question is between £500 and £600 per case, which is hardly lucrative. The proposals will mean that the 500 or so solicitors in the Province will be replaced in such work by a small number of assessors. This is one matter which must constantly be kept under review.

In conclusion, I accept much that is in the scheme, but I am concerned about the issues that I have mentioned.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I appreciate the fact that there has been a strong welcome for the scheme from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches and from the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I shall try to deal with his concerns, but he said that he welcomed many aspects of the scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that it is a fairer and more efficient system. He raised the question of loss of earnings in the first 28 weeks. The period of 28 weeks follows precisely the arrangements in Great Britain and it coincides with the period which attracts statutory sick pay and for which many employers, particularly in the public sector, continue to pay a full salary to their employees. Furthermore, if we look at how systems operated in the past, we see that in practice only a small fraction of awards under the existing arrangements are for loss of earnings. However, I emphasise that the period is in line with the rest of the UK.

I turn to insurance claims, which is a more difficult issue. The Government believe that it is wrong to use taxpayers' money to provide an award of special expenses for health requirements where a private health insurance policy has already paid out to meet a specific health need. The new scheme removes that anomaly and brings Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain.

As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will recognise, if there were to be any change in a scheme which allowed for the cost of premiums, that would involve a change in the rest of the UK and it would be a matter far wider than my responsibilities. However, in practice, the new scheme will provide for any difference between the level of the cost of care provided for under an insurance scheme and the actual

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costs incurred by a person in receipt of the care. Therefore, provided that the provision is reasonable, there is provision for that difference to be made good.

I greatly welcome the support given by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and in particular the emphasis that he and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put on the changes made in respect of victims of child abuse. That has been welcomed throughout the House. It is a simpler and fairer system. In the tradition of his Benches, he expressed his strong support for devolution and said that he looked forward to the day when further devolved powers would be possible. I can say to the noble Lord that the Government also look forward to that day. Echoing a point made in part by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, the Government look forward to the time when responsibility for reserved matters such as this important area of policy can be devolved. There is no disagreement on that point.

I shall deal as well as I can with the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird. He is absolutely right to say that we need to be able to review the system and I can confirm that I have already given an undertaking to that effect. In practice, the scheme in Britain was reviewed in 1999, some three years after it came into operation. Changes to the tariff levels were made in 2001. However, in a sense I have already given a stronger assurance than that by saying that Ministers will look at the scheme regularly to see how it is working.

The scheme as set out does not follow precisely in all respects the Bloomfield report, but it does follow its thrust. I am sure that a close examination of the details will substantiate my words.

The noble Lord mentioned consultation in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was quite right to point out that objections were expressed, but the Government strongly believe that this is a better scheme than the one currently in place and that it is in the interest of victims that the new scheme should be introduced as rapidly as possible. We very much hope that we shall be able to bring in the scheme on 1st May, should noble Lords agree to the provisions before the House. It is our intention to introduce it as quickly as possible, precisely because it was clear from all the consultations that took place that the victims themselves were looking for a speedier and more intelligible resolution of their claims.

The noble Lord mentioned consultation with the Law Society in Northern Ireland. Such consultation has taken place. My honourable friend in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, has both corresponded regularly with and met representatives of the society. Consultation has taken place throughout the review process.

Finally, I turn to the question of costs. Under the current scheme, applicants' legal costs have risen from an average of £574 in 1996-97 to £660 in 2000-01, an increase of 17 per cent. Overall, applicants' legal costs have been running at some £4.7 million. Instead of being spent as at present, we feel that that money would be far better used as part of a compensation scheme.

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In conclusion, I want to re-emphasise the point I made about review and the mood of the Government in recommending this proposal to the House. We intend to look at the scheme as it proceeds. However, we believe that it represents a significant step forward and I hope that noble Lords will agree to it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill [HL]

9.17 p.m.

Lord Mustill: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Over recent months, this House has been preoccupied with great affairs of state, both international and domestic. Indeed, this evening the House heard a thoughtful debate on an issue of great social importance. It may seem inappropriate to take up even a short time at the end of the day on a miniature Bill which might at first glance seem both obscure—it is not easy to read—and trifling. However, I suggest that, even if the Bill is on a small scale, it is not trifling. If it finds favour, it will eliminate a gender anomaly which should not exist. As to obscurity, I shall endeavour to penetrate its language under five brief headings.

The headings are as follows: first, what are borough freedoms; secondly, what is their legal status; thirdly, what is the anomaly which the Bill seeks to correct; fourthly, why should this be done by Parliament rather than in some other way; and, fifthly, what will be the effect of the Bill?

First, I turn to the borough freedoms. One has to go back to medieval times to understand this ancient institution. It is probably the oldest legal institution that exists in the United Kingdom today. The control of local trade and local government was in the hands of a body of freemen, so called because they were free of the restrictions on trade and other activities which applied to persons outside the liberties. Parliamentary suffrage was also limited to freemen, who were the burghers of the boroughs. These privileges became a source of abuse and were sharply restricted by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and by the opening-up of the parliamentary suffrage which was going on at the same time.

It would have been possible at any time during the past 160 years for Parliament simply to abolish the freedoms, but it never chose to do so. Instead it recognised and preserved their status by a succession of Acts of Parliament, beginning with the 1835 Act and continuing until the Local Government Act 1972.

By the present day the tangible benefits of the membership of a freedom have been reduced, so much so that in some boroughs they are non-existent. I need

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not take up time by giving illustrations of the modest benefits which exist because all the freedoms are different and it would take a long time to describe them across the board.

Nowadays, the reason people still wish to become freemen is not personal gain but because it identifies the member with the local community in a way which is much more intimate, continuous and long-standing than the exercise of the local government franchise or election to local councils. The freemen are not competitors of councillors and aldermen. The two systems exist in parallel and in harmony.

Secondly, what is the legal status of the freedoms? They are creatures of ancient custom—very ancient indeed. As I said, they are probably the oldest legal institutions in this country. They are creatures of custom not of statute. Although statute has recognised their existence, it has not created them or provided mechanisms enabling the freemen to bring them up to date by their own consent. Some ancient charters contained such mechanisms but, for reasons with which I shall not trouble the House as it would take some time to explain and would not be very illuminating, those powers have not survived the successive reforms of local government. So these ancient customs remain frozen in the state in which they were when they first came into existence hundreds of years ago.

Thirdly, what is the wrong that the Bill seeks to remedy? The answer lies in the fact that the customs are frozen in their ancient forms. Since changes were made at the time of great reforms 160 years ago, persons can only become freemen by descent from a parent freeman, and in a substantial proportion of boroughs this descent can take place only in the male line. Daughters are thus barred, for no valid reason, from the benefits—largely intangible but benefits none the less—of succeeding to this ancient status.

Fourthly, assuming this to be wrong—and I hope the House will assume it to be wrong—why take up the time of Parliament in putting it right? Are there no other ways in which the courts could perhaps provide a solution with the aid of the anti-discrimination provisions of the human rights legislation? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no". I say "seems" because the legal status of these institutions is so strange and is lost in the mists of history. I can say, however, that legal research suggests that even through the courts the remedy is at the very best speculative and almost certainly non-existent. So it falls back on Parliament to put the matter right. That is why I propose this Second Reading.

What is the effect of the Bill? Primarily, as will appear from its wording, to insert a provision enabling the daughter of a freeman to be admitted as a freeman of a city or town notwithstanding her gender. This will put right across the board, and once and for all, the need for each borough freedom individually to embark on the costly and highly speculative task of trying to find some solution of a different nature.

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In Clause 1(2) of the Bill there is a correction of the absurdity that a person can only be a freeman if born within the precincts of the borough. There is a brief reference to the fact that the Act does not bear on the City of London, the freemen of which are governed by a completely different regime. This Bill has nothing to do with honorary freemen. When one reads in the newspapers that someone has been made a freeman of a borough, that is an entirely different matter, with which this Bill is not concerned at all.

There it is. This is a modest measure. Thrones will not tumble whatever its fate, but gender discrimination is wrong. The fact that it is not a great matter does not prevent it from being wrong and it is something which, in the absence of any other means, Parliament can fittingly put right. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Mustill.)

9.26 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on bringing this Bill before us. It made me begin thinking about certain memorable occasions in the past when this House discussed the hereditary principle. I declare almost an interest, being one of the surviving hereditary Peers—one of the "preserved in aspic" brigade, as it were. I have an older sister and the question has been raised, "Why should you be there and I am not?" There are those wonderful acrimonious moments that one can only have in families.

As regards the Bill itself, I agree that there is no reason for resisting it. Presumably, it refers to the Norman idea of preserving estates and things in one place, which we have officially got rid of. The idea that daughters should not be allowed to inherit has been done away with over time. And the hereditary principle has been finally dealt with in this Chamber.

Whether freemen of the borough still have a place in modern society is not addressed in the Bill. The principle of whether such an anomaly should be allowed to continue is still there and if it is primarily honorific we should be able to say yes to that. I cannot see any reason why the principle should not be endorsed, but whether Parliament should spend more time on it than a short debate of this kind is open to discussion. I shall not try to do any more of the Government's job than that. It is an interesting example of how history tends to continue unless one gets rid of it, and that is always very true in legislation.

9.28 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, for introducing this Bill and for his very eloquent and interesting explanation of its purpose and the wrong that it seeks to remedy. In essence, it would end primogeniture so that where the son of a freeman may claim to be admitted as a freeman, the daughter of a freeman may likewise claim to be admitted. It would remove any requirement that may exist limiting admission to the freedom of persons born within a borough's

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boundaries. As we have heard, the Bill does not seek to reintroduce admissions by gift or purchase. Nor does it deal with honorary freemen or freemen of the City of London.

This is a simple Bill, which addresses a small point. That said, it contains an important principle in that it confronts and removes an element of unjustified sex discrimination from the Local Government Act 1972. Her Majesty's Opposition are wholly supportive of the Bill and we wish it well in what we hope will be a rapid passage both in your Lordships' House and in another place.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, said, the Bill seeks to modernise succession rights to the title of freemen by providing that the title and the property rights that go with it can be handed down through the female line as well as the male. As the noble and learned Lord indicated, there are two similar titles: that of freeman and honorary freeman. Both are dealt with by the Local Government Act 1972.

Section 249(5) of the 1972 Act provides that a London borough or a district council having the status of city, borough or royal borough can admit any person to be an honorary freeman of that place. The decision is entirely at the discretion of the council which can make any person an honorary freeman regardless of gender, race, age or disability provided that the individual is a person of distinction or, in the opinion of the council, has rendered eminent service to the locality. The title is honorific and, beyond the distinction, it confers no other rights or duties. It is bestowed for life only and cannot be inherited by the individual's heirs.

The noble and learned Lord's Bill does not affect the right of these local authorities to bestow honorary freedom on individuals of either gender. Instead the Bill deals solely with the more ancient right to be a freeman of a town or city. That right was intimately bound with the rights of admission to the guilds and, in its present form, is both an inherited right and one that can confer property rights on the title holder.

As the noble and learned Lord said, it was the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 which first reorganised the governance of local authorities along modern lines. In doing so, it swept away the existing arrangements which gave freemen special rights in the election and governance of the pre-1835 corporate boroughs. As a class, freemen of the old corporate boroughs also enjoyed the exclusive right to benefit from the rents and profits of certain corporate land and property. The 1835 Act preserved those rights and since 1835 successive local government Acts, including the 1972 Act, have reconfirmed the position.

The 1835 Act and its successors also froze the basis on which a person can be admitted to a freeman. They invariably provide for a right of succession so that a freeman can pass on his title and property to his heirs. However, reflecting their antecedents they are often based on patrimony and cannot, therefore, be passed

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from a father to his daughter. It is this anachronism which the Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill seeks to remedy. It does so by amending Section 248 of the Local Government Act 1972 which reconfirmed the right of freemen first preserved under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.

I hope that noble Lords find this explanation helpful. The Government will not take a formal view for or against the Bill. We shall take no steps to oppose its progress through your Lordships' House.

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9.32 p.m.

Lord Mustill: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for giving their attention to this modest matter. I do not think that I should take up time by making further comment beyond what I have already said. I invite your Lordships to read the Bill a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

        House adjourned at twenty-six minutes before ten o'clock.


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